Football: 'Squeaky Bum' time as cracks come to the fore

Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford tormenting the Chelsea backline as the Reds ran out worthy winners. With only six games left and a four-point lead, there's all to play for.
Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford tormenting the Chelsea backline as the Reds ran out worthy winners. With only six games left and a four-point lead, there's all to play for.PHOTO: REUTERS

Chelsea are still in the box seat with a kinder fixtures list, but Spurs have the momentum

LONDON • A four-point lead with six games to go. Is the Premier League title race now back on, after so many had assumed Chelsea had the championship in the bag?

The fixture list suggests that Chelsea should still be able to finish above challengers Tottenham Hotspur. But strange things can happen when the pressure reaches its greatest intensity and there was certainly something strange about Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Manager Antonio Conte struck an unusual tone when addressing the media after Sunday's 2-0 loss to Manchester United, the Blues' second defeat in four games.

"They showed more desire, more ambition, more motivation. It is very simple but in this case the fault is of the coach. It means the coach was not able to transfer the right concentration, desire, ambition to win this game," he said.

Perhaps that was merely an example of a manager taking responsibility for a loss, but it could also have been a clever way of admonishing his team for their lack of desire in a game where they failed to produce a single shot on goal.

Why would his players need to be motivated by him at this crucial stage in the season?

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    Shots on target by Chelsea at Old Trafford yesterday. It was the first time they have failed to register one in a Premier League match since September 2007.

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    Clean sheets for Chelsea in their past 10 Premier League games, the first time they have had such a streak since December 1996 (13 games).

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    It was Chelsea's first defeat in nine Premier League games against Manchester United (W4 D4 L1), with the Blues last losing in October 2012.

Then there were Conte's comments about Saturday's FA Cup semi-final which pits the two London title rivals against each other.

"It won't be easy because I think Tottenham are the best team and they are in good form and they have a lot of enthusiasm. They are feeling the possibility to write the history and it is important to know this," the Italian said.

So, according to Conte, we have a Chelsea team lacking motivation, and a Spurs side who are the best in England and with a chance of glory.

Add in Conte's reminder of how this season should be seen in the context of Chelsea's poor campaign last year, and the impression is left of a manager trying to lower hopes when they are at their highest.

Certainly Chelsea do not look like ending the season in peak form and Spurs are indeed playing some exhilarating and effective football.

But a glance at the fixtures list should ease, if not totally dispel, any nerves afflicting the Stamford Bridge faithful.

Four of Chelsea's six remaining games are at home, where they have lost just two of 15 games this season.

Two of those games are against relegation candidates Middlesbrough and Sunderland while the others are against beatable mid-table teams Southampton and Watford.

However, the two away games will be more testing.

Everton have won eight straight games at Goodison and are brimming with confidence, while West Bromwich are eighth and no pushovers at home.

Tottenham have just two home games remaining, and they are against a United team who are unbeaten in 22 matches, and a north London derby against Arsenal, who may be struggling but would love nothing more than to kill their rivals' title hopes.

But Tottenham have a momentum that Chelsea have lost - having won their last 12 home games - and manager Mauricio Pochettino certainly is not worrying about a lack of motivation.

It would still be a huge surprise if Chelsea fail to get the job done.

Yet Frank Lampard, the ex-Chelsea midfielder, had it right when he said in the Sky Sports studio after Sunday's game that "losing games brings an element of doubt".

REUTERS, THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline ''Squeaky bum' time as cracks come to fore'. Print Edition | Subscribe